​A Mental Condition Can Make People Seem to Spew Ticker Tape

Some people's entire lives are closed captioned. Whenever the people around them speak a word, they can see it spewing on a tape, like ticker tape. Here's what it's like to live in a world where the subtitles are always on.

Synesthesia is a relatively common phenomenon. About four percent of the world's population confuses their senses. They hear something when they see certain colors, or they see colors when they hear music. Some people "taste" words, which can make conversation unpleasant. And then there are the people with what's known as ticker tape synesthesia. They literally see the words that come out of a people's mouths.

The condition, according to many synesthetes, can be annoying. When they don't understand a language, the condition can act as a block to understanding. While most of us have a hard enough time figuring out what foreign-language-speakers are saying by facial expression, context, gestures, and an odd phoneme, ticker tape synesthetes have to do the same while struggling to cope with more useless input as part of their brain tries to spell words they don't know. They also have a difficult time with second languages, as the have to concentrate on spelling the words at the same time as they are hearing them. When learning the language, they have to focus on reading it, and spelling it, before they can practice conversations. On the other hand, because they are getting information during a conversation from two sources – or perhaps it's better to say their brain forces them to process information in two different ways – they are better spellers, and have better memories than people who rely only on our ears.

Ticker tape synesthesia might not come alone. Synesthetes often have several kinds of synesthesia, and ticker taper often find they also have mirror touch synesthesia. When mirror touch synesthetes see other people being touched, they feel that touch on their own body. Scientists believe this might be a form of extreme empathy, and mirror touchers do tend to show better recognition of emotional facial expressions than people who don't experience mirror touch. Mirror touch and ticker tape seemed so correlated that scientists did studies to see if they were someone connected. One study found that there was no real connection between the two. Another found that the connection was a bit better than chance, but might be due to fuzzy data. (Synesthesia studies tend to turn up a lot of false positives. In one study sixty percent of respondents said they experienced synesthesia, when the population is only about four percent synesthetes.) So while these experience may be connected, they might just be two unrelated quirks of minds that are prone to synesthesia in the general case.

[Via NCBI, Perception.]